Grads Getting Job Skills to Go with Diplomas

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), June 10, 2005 | Go to article overview

Grads Getting Job Skills to Go with Diplomas


Byline: Greg Bolt The Register-Guard

The old joke goes something like this: "What's the question you're most likely to hear from someone who's just graduated with a liberal arts degree?"

Answer: "Would you like fries with that?"

It's a popular notion that people who spend four years in college and come out with a degree in English or history or philosophy - or any of the other subjects that make up the core liberal arts curriculum - end up driving cabs or flipping burgers. But that's more myth than truth.

What's true is that liberal arts graduates, once they've spent a few years in the working world, often end up outearning their counterparts in more specialized fields. And when the University of Oregon awards more than 3,000 bachelor's degrees Saturday, a few of the hundreds who walk out with liberal arts degrees already will be on track for the better-paying jobs.

Take Laureen Youngblood, for example.

Youngblood, 38, is graduating with a degree in art. But thanks to a new program that helps undergraduates add some real-world value to their bachelor's degrees, she's walking out with an extra set of skills in interior design that will give her a boost toward the career she's always wanted.

"It's something I've always been interested in and had never been able to do without the education," she said. "That was why I decided to go back to school."

Youngblood is one of a small but growing number of students taking part in a new program, Professional Distinctions, designed to help UO students get skills that will better prepare them for the job market. It's open to students in all majors, but it has particular attraction for liberal arts majors who want a leg up on what can initially be a tough job market.

Russ Tomlin, the UO's vice provost for academic affairs who helped develop Professional Distinctions, said the idea was to help students have more success in their first job searches out of college.

"When you leave with your bachelor's degree and you go out with thousands of others looking for things, it's intensely frustrating to not be able to score a really exciting job on your first couple of efforts," he said. "So the Professional Distinctions is a way of trying to make a student look more distinctive and be more distinctive to a prospective employer."

For liberal arts majors, that's a plus. About the only place they lag behind students who graduate with professional or career-focused degrees is in the first few years after graduation; after that, they usually pull even with graduates in more technical fields, even without a program such as Professional Distinctions.

In fact, Tomlin said, studies have shown that while business, law or engineering graduates may get better-paying jobs right out of college, liberal arts majors catch up relatively quickly. A study of liberal arts graduates at Penn State University found that students with career-oriented majors do earn more money for the first few years after graduation, he said, but after five years the income graph changes.

"Then the lines cross and they never cross again," said Tomlin. "So the liberal arts graduates come out and may have an initial year or two of greater struggle or exploration, but eventually they will supersede the focused bachelor's degrees in both income and employability."

In part, that's because in a job market where people change careers an average of three or four times in their lifetimes, a focused set of skills often leaves a person less able to adapt to a changing marketplace. …

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